Angela Pinaglia: Gliding Through

Angela Pinaglia

It’s here! It’s here! In the past you might have heard me mention (once or five times) something about my involvement with film festivals. As with so many events, The Women’s Film Festival (TWFF) had to cancel in 2020, but at long last it is here! The festival is 10 days of films, “For, by or about women.” It kicks off on Sept, 16th at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre with Philadelphia filmmaker Joy Marzec’s film, “I Am That”. The festival continues throughout the city at various venues until the 26th. 

Some highlights of the festival are “On the Queer Side,” a program of short films including “Nice Chinese Girls Don’t” about writer, poet, body builder, and lesbian activist Kitty Tsui, and “KAMA’ĀINA (CHILD OF THE LAND)” a doc about a queer sixteen-year-old girl who finds refuge at Hawaiʻi’s largest organized homeless encampment. The feature doc, “Queering the Script” gives queer fandom a voice in the conversation about LGBTQ+ representation, from Showtime’s “THE L WORD” to FX’s “POSE.” This week’s portrait has a film that’s not about, but is by one of us. Angela Pinaglia is the director of “Life in Synchro,” a beautiful film about synchronized ice skating, sometimes called, “The toughest sport you’ve never heard of.” I spoke to the charming Pinaglia from her home in Maryland.

Tell me a little about yourself, did I read correctly that you’re from Miami?

Born and raised! And I’m very proud of that. Me and my wife moved up to the DC/Maryland area 10 years ago, but I’m very defined by growing up in Miami. Especially now living in another place. You really appreciate home. Miami is a really special city in that it’s run by immigrants; you don’t need to speak English in Miami. It’s a city in which Hispanics and Latinos don’t even know that they’re a minority. My wife and I are both Latina, and when we got here we were like, “Wait, we are a minority!”

Describe the place where you grew up. 

It was in Central Miami so it wasn’t like Little Havana or anything like that, and it wasn’t by a beach. It was a working class neighborhood. My mother’s an immigrant from the Dominican Republic who married a gringo, my dad. My dad never learned to speak Spanish and my mom didn’t speak English, so love was the language that they communicated with. Over time she learned English. But back to Miami, as much as I love it I don’t think I’ll ever move back because we’ve established ourselves here. But oddly, Baltimore is kind of similar to Miami in some ways and has become my 2nd home.

What were you like as a kid? Sporty? Nerdy?

Definitely not sporty! Everyone assumes that I am because my film is about sports, but I’m the antithesis of sporty! I was a dork, kind of nerdy, I was in band, but I just dabbled. When marching band got too serious I quit. I had a lot of interests and was very extroverted. In HS I set a goal for myself to be in the top 10 in my class, and I did it! Because I did so well, I qualified for a scholarship to go to the University of Florida for free where I majored in English. I was the first to go to college in my family and I kind of got lost, it was a big school and you can become just a number sometimes, but I got through it. It wasn’t until I was 31 when I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up and got into filmmaking! That being said, in my 20’s I started a preschool and a private school with my sister, and it was successful but not what I really wanted to be doing, as important as education was to me. [Laughing] My dream school was Sarah Lawrence, somehow I just knew there would be lesbians there. I got in, but couldn’t afford to go. 

So speaking of that, what were early signs that you were gay?

[Laughing] So many. I was looking at some old photos and I was a such a tomboy, not that that means that you’re gay, but I was like, thick, topless, leaning back on an arm, imitating my Godfather. But I didn’t know what it meant until high school, then it was like, “Oooh, am I really gay though?” It was such a scary time to be gay. We almost forget it because we’ve come so far, so quickly. But it was 1998 and they wouldn’t sell me a prom ticket for me to go with another woman, even as friends! So as a big, fuck you, I didn’t go to prom. Now I wish I’d made it an issue and gone, but oh well, you live and learn. 

When did you come out?

Well, the girl that I couldn’t take to prom eventually became my girlfriend, and she even transferred to college near me so we could live together but I still didn’t tell my parents. They thought she was my roommate. Then when I was 20 I got it into my heart that I had to tell my mom. So Halloween weekend I went home and told her… and she did not take it well. Not in an angry way, it was more like she felt that she had failed somehow, that it was all her fault somehow. We grew up very religious in a Pentecostal household, at least on her side. After that reaction, I did not tell my father until I emailed him just a couple of weeks before I got married. Like, 12 years later. Even though he knew, I mean I lived with the girlfriend who became my wife, but that first reaction from my mom was impressionable enough that I didn’t come out and tell him for years. I mean I was out, but not out out. You wouldn’t walk down the street holding hands, people were not nice to gay folks not long ago. It’s still not [nice] sometimes, but it was more blatant then. I’ve been with my wife for 17 years but at the time she was a teacher and you really had to be careful if you worked around kids and you were gay. But anyway, we’re both now out, loud and proud! 

What was the transition to filmmaking?

I remember being about 16 and watching the Academy Awards and thought, “I want to do this” but I didn’t know how, I mean how do you become a filmmaker? I couldn’t even take film classes in college because I wasn’t part of the arts school. But I started getting into photography and doing a lot of the marketing for the schools that my sister and I were running. My wife was in law school and I applied to grad school at the American University in DC and I got in! That was 10 years ago, which is crazy! It’s been a slow process but now I feel like I can officially and proudly say that I’m a filmmaker! 

Well, from the execution of your film “Life in Synchro” you certainly deserve that moniker. How did you get introduced to the idea?

This is one of the benefits of leaving Miami, right? I never would have stumbled into synchronized ice skating in Miami. I knew about the sport for years before I had ever seen it because my friend, Nicole Davies, who became one of the producers, was a skater. She would always tell me “I’m a skater” and I really did not care. [Laughing] It was so asshole of me looking back! I now think, “I was such a jerk!” But she’d tell me about it and it would go in one ear, I would translate the words “synchronized skater” into something I was not interested in — without knowing anything about it — which was very small minded. I can admit that now, but c’mon, those two words together are like, “what is that?” Anyway, fast forward to when I finally saw it and I was like, “Nicole! Why didn’t you tell me about this?” and she said, “I’ve been trying for years!” And I think that’s part of the problem that the sport has, that people bring a preconceived notion of what synchro is about. They think they know, and they write it off like I did. But once I saw it, I recognized that there was something really special going on. 

One of the things that makes it so heartwarming is the multi-generational aspect to it.

Oh yeah. There are a lot of sports that you can play at any age, but it was amazing to see all these different age groups together at the same competition. 

I remember one skater in the film saying, “It’s its own sport, it’s not the female version of something and it’s 99.99% female. No one knows about it because it’s not broadcast on TV. No one knows about it unless you’re in the bubble.”

Yes, there were so many women involved in such a beautiful way. To me as an outsider, what makes synchro special is that it’s a female dominated sport and in the absence of men, beautiful things happen. The young girls are given the space to grow and bloom and flourish in ways I’ve never seen, they become confident. 

There were so many quotable moments from the film. One of my favorites was when a team lost and the coach said in her pep talk, “We got last, but we were really close to not last.” And one of the girls later said, “We don’t give up because everyone makes everyone feel better.” 

So perfect and simple, right? Out of the mouths of babes, and yeah, that coach is amazing. And what’s cool is that when you think of sports documentaries, you usually focus on the top teams, but I’m not showing you the #1 team in the US, or the #2 team. We focus on someone like Emily who is at the top level, but we also focus on Heidi who is 65 and competing for the love of it. And then show you the kid who may one day be like Emily if that’s her path, or the 50 year old who was a champion in the 80’s and still does it just to be with friends. It’s what’s so incredible about the sport, it serves so many different functions and roles for different people. 

What left an impression on you?

Anytime you see synchronized skating in person it is impressive. One person describes it like seeing a flock of birds fly. Seeing Emily at the National Championships in a huge arena was impressive, but what also left an impression on me was the fact that the arena was not very full. And that’s a messed up dynamic, you have these athletes who are dedicating so much to this ephemeral sport and there’s no one to witness it. And that speaks to the passion that they have for the sport, that they continue to do it in spite of that. 

I also loved the fact that you see women doing lifts with other women which showcases our strength, well not me personally, but women in general! 

Yes, that’s great and again, because there are no guys, for the most part the women get to do roles that they wouldn’t normally get to do. 

What was the biggest challenge making the film?

Honestly, the traveling. So imagine a girl from Miami, who lives in Maryland where it doesn’t snow much, driving to Michigan and Lake Placid, NY and Maine, white knuckling it in treacherous conditions to get the frickin’ shots. It was intense, I was like, am I gonna die for this movie?

So back to personal stuff, when did you get married?

In 2013, as soon as it was legal. We got married in Vermont because I always wanted to go to summer camp but never did, so we had a summer camp themed wedding. It was fun, about 55 people. I’ve known Anna since we were 14, it’s pretty amazing to be with someone you’ve known for so long. 

And soon you’re going to be parents…

Yes, my wife is the one who’s carrying. We put it off and then we were like whoops, we should get going with this. Unlike straight couples who may have other types of whoops, gay couples have to think about it. She’s a public defender for the state of Maryland, so we have great insurance. We had IVF and got lucky right away. It’s really exciting, we’re having a girl. Anna’s at 8 months, so it’s happening soon. 

So let’s do some rapid fire questions: who would you contact at a seance? 

Oh man, it sounds cheesy, but my dead Godmother. 

Worst clothing disaster?

I have sweaty feet and in college I thought I could be a good lesbian and wear Birkenstocks. I felt like I was walking in a puddle and that was the first and last time I wore sandals in public! 

When did you last cry?

We had a virtual baby shower and all of the lovely and affirming things people said got me crying. 

What’s your sign?

The best sign, Leo. I was hoping my daughter would be a Leo, but hopefully she’ll be a Libra; we’re compatible. 

Any hobbies?

We just bought a house, so my hobby now is working to rid my basement of water and asbestos before our child is born. 

Vegan or meat eater?

Aspirationally vegan, but I dabble in the meat. Especially because my wife has to eat meat because she’s pregnant. 

What would you put in a time capsule?

[Laughing] That depends, am I still alive when they open it!

Back to synchro, what’s something that sticks with you about the sport and the people that participate?

It’s about a group of people working towards one common goal. As Heidi says in the movie, it’s not about the individual person, it’s about everybody. There is no quarterback, there’s not someone who’s good at hitting home runs, it becomes about the greater group. And honestly, that might be why it’s not more popular, it’s not a very capitalist thing to not want to be top dog. But everyone I spoke to all found that they evolved and grew from this very unique experience, from the coaches to the skaters to the fans. 

And now our audiences!